Brenna recalls a letter written to her by a girl with cerebral palsy who identified with the character in Wild Orchid and felt that some of the same structures and restrictions that society was placing on Taylor represented this reader in her own life.
“It’s really meaningful to me to hear from kids and adults who are touched by my work. I save every letter that I get,” said Brenna.
With Wild Orchid finished, Brenna started to turn her thoughts to the other literacy challenge she’d encountered: the need for a resource list.
“Sure I could write one book, but that might not change the field that much. That’s when I started phoning around to universities about PhD programs and connected with Professor Joyce Bainbridge at the U of A,” Brenna said.
Her dissertation focused on patterns and trends in Canadian novels portraying a character with an exceptionality in a prominent position such as a protagonist or antagonist.
“Some really interesting stereotypes came to light. If there was mental health or mental illness spoken about, it was usually the mother, rarely the father. And if it was the father, they usually got cured before the book ended,” said Brenna. “Doing this research has helped inform my own further writing. I hope that it inspired other people to either write or do more research. Those were my goals, in addition to using these book lists in classrooms.”
As part of her dissertation, she interviewed three prominent award-winning Canadian authors—Jean Little, Pamela Porter and Rachna Gilmour—to explore what led them to write about protagonists with exceptionalities.
“They had really interesting stories to tell about difference and why they were on that path,” said Brenna. “Jean Little talked a lot about why she wrote about ability, because in her life [as a visually-impaired person] she hadn’t found books that represented her.”
Brenna would go on to publish her dissertation as a comprehensive education resource in Stories for Every Classroom: Canadian Fiction Portraying Characters with Disabilities. This book features her mother’s stories and lessons from her time in the classroom.
“I think my mom’s narrative has shaped me in a way that only stories can do and lit a fire under me to be a better teacher than some of the teachers she had,” shared Brenna. “She had stories about children in her home district when she was a child, and the horrible kind of persecution that some kids faced because of a difference perceived by other children [and teachers] who weren’t very accepting.”